Reporter arrested, phone confiscated while covering NC homeless camp eviction
Asheville Blade reporter Matilda Bliss was arrested alongside a colleague while covering a police eviction of a homeless encampment in Asheville, North Carolina, on Dec. 25, 2021.
Bliss, whose pronouns are she/they, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker she had been at Aston Park multiple times throughout the day but had left to run an errand at approximately 9 p.m. Both Bliss and Blade reporter Veronica Coit returned to the park a little before 10 p.m. after receiving texts about a growing police force gathering at the park. A small encampment in the park was the latest focus of ongoing city efforts to clear Asheville’s homeless populations out of public areas, according to the Asheville Citizen Times.
As officers directed everyone in the camp to “move on” under threat of arrest, Coit and Bliss documented their actions from a distance, Bliss told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. The Blade reported that one of the officers then pointed toward Coit and said, “[They’re] taking pictures.”
Five officers then advanced toward Coit and placed them under arrest. Several officers then told Bliss to immediately leave the park or face arrest. Bliss repeatedly identified as a member of the press before she, too, was arrested.
The Blade reported that Bliss was wearing a press badge issued by the outlet at the time of her arrest.
“According to the last things [Bliss and Coit] observed, and from sources they later spoke with, APD then grew even more violent, dragging campers out of tents and arresting them,” the Blade reported. “Our journalists were clearly targeted first to remove those who could quickly bring the brutality that followed to the public’s attention.”
Coit and Bliss were each charged with second degree trespassing, which carries a penalty of up to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine.
Blade founder and editor David Forbes told the Tracker that while Coit was released shortly after midnight, Bliss was left handcuffed in a police car for more than two hours and was the last person released from custody. Forbes said that to the best of the journalists’ knowledge, Bliss was the only arrestee whose phone was confiscated.
Bliss told the Tracker that when she was released at approximately 1:50 a.m. on the 26th, officers did not return her belongings, stating that they are being held as evidence and that it’s up to the district attorney to approve their release. The Asheville Police Department did not return a call requesting comment.
The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the arrests in a statement on Twitter a few days after the incident:
“Authorities in #Asheville, NC should drop all charges against @AvlBlade reporters Veronica Coit and @matilda_bliss, who were arrested on December 25. We are deeply concerned that @AshevillePolice interfered with their reporting, and unnecessarily confiscated Bliss's phone.”
Forbes told the Tracker that the charges against Bliss and Coit are still pending and they both have hearings scheduled for March 8, 2022.
“It was a hard experience but also I’m not going to back down either,” Bliss told the Tracker. “That’s the only way that this doesn’t happen to other people.”